When Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas went ahead and dropped a nuclear trade deadline bomb on the entire franchise, there were a number of tangible skills that roster had immediately changed in a drastic fashion.
D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, James Johnson and Juancho Hernangomez arrived as players with a history of being able to knock down 3-pointers — something the Timberwolves’ let-em-fly system desperately craved. In Russell and Beasley, they also acquired a clear upgrade in playmaking and shot creation. On the other hand, they unquestionably lost talent and cohesiveness on the defensive side of the ball.
One thing that isn’t measurable in percentages or all-encompassing defensive metrics is leadership. The ability to inspire and guide a young team who is trying to crawl out of the NBA’s doldrums isn’t a task for everyone, but the new faces have taken it upon themselves to lead the charge.
It starts with the 10-year veteran James Johnson. On the court, he has provided a versatile spark on both ends and has shown he is a great deal more than the overpriced and underplayed benchwarmer he was relegated to being in Miami. In the 11 games since arriving in the Twin Cities, he is averaging 11.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks in just 24.5 minutes per game. In addition, the 56.3 effective field goal percentage he holds would be a career-high.
When he isn’t blocking shots or finishing nifty moves with a soft touch, Johnson is constantly chirping and instructing his teammates. Making sure to always keep a positive energy in the process.
Pouting on the bench doesn't happen on James Johnson's watch. Pretty cool, actually.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) March 1, 2020
The 33-year-old has quickly become the vocal leader of the team. However, during the postgame media scrum after the Timberwolves beat the Chicago Bulls and claimed their first multi-game win streak since early January, Johnson was quick to point out that he isn’t ruling with an iron fist. He is just another link in the chain of communication.
“There is two parts to communication,” he said. “If you ain’t got guys who want to receive it and really get better than you’re talking to the air. So, I commend them guys and, like I said, J-Mac helps me out a ton out there, JC helps me out a ton out there. I’ve got to listen too.”
Unlike the likes of Jimmy Butler, who made sure everybody knew he was the leader and what he said goes, or Karl-Anthony Towns, who heaps the blame on himself in the form of a flood of cliches, Johnson provides the perfect balance. He knows he has been in the association longer than his teammates, but his ears are still open to learning things from his youthful comrades.
In fact, despite clearly relishing being able to contribute on the court after being restricted to just 18 games in South Beach, Johnson has no problem taking a backseat to enhance his potential-laden teammates. That includes undrafted rookie Naz Reid, who has started to find his feet as a starter in Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence.
“I’m here to help ... whatever it takes,” Johnson said. “If Naz is playing like that every night, I’m good with sitting down, help coaching. I promise you.”
That kind of confidence in you from a teammate can go a long way. Reid’s impact had seemed to plateau lately, but having players around him who believe in his ability is the exact thing Reid needs to keep his chin high.
While it’s important to have role players who can motivate and drive his brothers, it’s just as crucial to have your star players that can impact winning by putting the ball in the cylinder or making the right pass, as well as leading with their voice and their instructions.
That’s where D’Angelo Russell has been somewhat of a surprise. Sure, he has been a lights out shooter and a pick-and-roll maestro in his short Wolves tenure, but it’s his insistence to direct players on where to be and how to be there—both during plays and in huddles—that has been noticeable. He is nonstop chatter on the court, calmly administering advice to his younger, less experienced teammates and willing to listen when the counseling comes back his way.
His teammates, including backcourt partner Malik Beasley, have quickly noticed Russell’s teaching skills.
“We’ve been pushing each other in the game,” Beasley said. “If I have a slip-up or somebody scores on me D-Lo is on me about it ... once you’ve got a brother out there to go play with you and go do the things you want to do like win and compete that makes it so much easier.”
Russell entered the fray with a reputation that had been tarnished through immature actions early on in his career, but he seems to be taking it personally to become a true point guard. That means cashing your own meal tickets while simultaneously keeping the rest of your guys fed. That means being the pilot even when the ball isn’t in your hands. That means holding yourself and everybody around you accountable.
Karl-Anthony Towns is the most skilled big man in the league (offensively, anyway), but he has struggled to develop that side of the game. Despite a skill set that stretches far beyond his years, he is yet to fully home in on the maturity and leadership needed to an Alpha Wolf. With Russell, Towns’ close friend, showing he can exhibit those traits and still lead by example through his impressive on-court performances, perhaps that takes some pressure off Towns and allows him to grow at his own speed rather than being forced into the lone figurehead role.
Finally, there is Malik Beasley, whose killer mentality and win-or-die attitude have quickly earned him a special place in Wolvesdom. He is the perfect marriage of the past and present leaders this team has seen. Like Russell, he is leading by example, averaging 21.4 points and hitting 43.9 percent of his 3-point attempts since joining the team and has the makings of a legitimately elite scorer.
Like Butler and Kevin Garnett, B-Easy is more than willing to take the reigns as the captain of the team.
“I’m the leader of this team, so I’ve got to help others to where they need to be, I’ve got to help myself figure out where I can get shots or make passes and reads,” he said after the Bulls win. “The games I’ve let come to me we’re 3-0. I feel like when I’m able to play the right way and be a true leader and not just worry about myself it’s like I take my game to another level,”
Like Johnson, he is never afraid of big-upping his teammates.
“I tell [Naz Reid] every time ‘boy he’s a beast,’” he said. “Even if he turns the ball over, even if he doesn’t do the right play, he’s a beast, man.”
And like Towns, Beasley isn’t afraid of some outlandish statements that throw his full support at the feet of his team.
“We’re a great team, man. It’s scary how great we are. People don’t see it yet,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great pieces, a lot of guys who are competitive, a lot of guys who want to be the best,”
It remains to be seen how this far this new core can take the Timberwolves into the future. However, one thing is for sure, if it does fail it won’t be because of a lack of leadership or competitiveness. The trade deadline breathed new life into this franchise and the uplifting and motivational attitudes of the players are just as much to thank as their ability to score the ball.